02.16.14 11:15 AM ET
Is This the End of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela?
“I want to get out of here. I want to leave this country as soon as possible and never come back.”
The text from my friend Luis surprised me. A lawyer by training, he got his masters in urban planning from an elite Manhattan university, and had returned to Venezuela full of hope. He was hired by a local NGO working on poverty abatement issues. But now, he’s fed up.
“Nothing works. There are lines to buy everything. Prices have gone through the roof. You can’t go out at night for fear of getting shot. If you want to get married, finding a place to live is impossible. The country has become unlivable.”
Luis’s story is a depressingly common one on the streets of Venezuela’s major urban centers. The nation’s young people are tired of enduring one of the world’s highest inflation rates, highest murder rates, scarcity of basic staples like toilet paper, and the near certainty that things are going to get worse before they get better. A few days ago, the Associated Press reported on Venezuelans camping on the sidewalk to get information about emigrating to Ireland.
True, these are largely members of Venezuela’s upper middle class, only a subsector of Venezuela’s demographics. But they are also the best and brightest of the country’s under-30s.
Luis is lucky. He has a degree from an overseas institution and speaks English. But others—particularly those under 25—aren’t quite so lucky. And these are the kids currently protesting and burning tires in the streets of Venezuela’s major cities.
This week, the streets of Caracas, Maracaibo, and the rest of Venezuela’s largest cities saw large protests that ended in violence. Three people were shot dead, with dozens more wounded. Many eyewitnesses lay the blame for the violence on government-sponsored armed motorcycle gangs, similar to the ones used to suppress pro-democracy protests in Iran in 2009.
So who are the protestors? They are mostly middle-class high-school and college students. They have seldom ventured into the streets, and they reject the path Venezuela is taking. Their objectives are hazy, ranging from an end to rampant crime to the resignation of the nation’s president, Nicolás Maduro.
Mostly, they are desperate. They see a dark future ahead, one in which Venezuela’s slow slide into a Cuban-style autocracy accelerates and is finally realized in its entirety. It’s not clear how long their protests will continue, but the protesters have vowed to stay on the streets. In a remarkable act of defiance, they have continued to protest throughout the country, even after Maduro supposedly “banned” all protests.
This “ban,” apparently decided on a whim and not really enforced, highlights the absurd contradictions of a government that appears to have lost both its propaganda skill and its compass.
On Friday, Maduro launched a government “program of peace and tolerance,” during which he denounced the protestors as “fascists.” Not a single member of the opposition was present. While the launch was being forcefully broadcast by all TV and radio stations in the country, the National Guard was attacking peaceful demonstrators with tear gas.
The government claims protestors want “a coup,” and that they are in turn defending “democracy,” all while forcing a Colombian news channel, NTN24, off the cable grid for providing too much coverage of the protests and the ensuing violence.
Venezuelans are accustomed to their government using Orwellian language. Indeed, this is a government that claims the scarcity and inflation caused by its own disastrous economic policies is somehow the consequence of an “economic war” engineered by the opposition. It is a government headed by a man who claims his predecessor died of cancer because his enemies—namely, the U.S.—“inoculated” him with the disease. The feeling that lunatics have taken over the insane asylum is what is driving much of the protests.
Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, once claimed capitalism had killed life on Mars, but insane statements clearly did not die with him. It’s clear that the governing elites in Caracas have a shaky grip on reality—and the problem is institutional. Venezuela’s political life has become a bad reality TV show, and the country’s youth simply wants it to end.
The young are restless, and they have had it. They want solutions to their problems, and an end to the mayhem that chavista Venezuela has become. Their strategy is not clear, and so far they are outnumbered and outgunned.
But they are not going anywhere.